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Best Books to Buy: “Personal Kanban” by Jim Benson & Tonianne DeMaria - GoLeanSixSigma.com

This month’s book is Personal Kanban: Mapping Work/Navigating Life by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria.

About the Book:

Personal Kanban depersonalizes and demystifies our work. It aligns our emotions with our goals, and transforms our fears from a specter to a sticky note.”

In the words of retired CIA Deputy of HR, Tom McClusky, this book provides a way “to balance your ‘crap-to-fun’ ratio,” and who doesn’t want to do that? A key term in the title is “Personal,” but have you heard of a “Kanban?” It’s Japanese for “signboard.” Its invention is attributed to Taiichi Ohno of the Toyota Production System as an element of Just-In-Time manufacturing.

If this sounds foreign and wonky, a Personal Kanban is actually just the opposite. It involves Lean concepts, it’s still about process “flow,” but Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria have created an elegant replacement for your “To Do” list — a way to manage your workload and thrive.

The authors have taken the “Rule of Three” and gone one better. There are only two rules of Personal Kanban:

  1. Visualize Your Work
  2. Limit Your Work-in-Process

They’re not above the Rule of Three, it just comes later. With those 2 main rules (and some sticky notes) the authors develop a valuable version of the Kanban Board. For those unfamiliar with Kanban Boards, the configuration of this Lean tool is deceptively simple. You separate your tasks into 3 basic columns — “Ready,” “Doing” and “Done.” Many will recognize it as one of the main tools used by software developers as part of the Agile method. Developers use these (often digital) boards to identify the different modules they need to create as they move them through the board from conception to completion.

You separate your tasks into 3 basic columns — “Ready,” “Doing” and “Done.”

The Personal Kanban is similar although it’s tactile, colorful and exists on a physical board. There are lots of variations and the authors give examples, but the idea is to list what’s “on deck” in terms of your most important “to dos,” what tasks you’re actively working on and which tasks you’ve completed. The result resembles the example below:

Sample Personal Kanban - GoLeanSixSigma.com

Sample Personal Kanban

As with all deceptively simple concepts, the devil is in the details. The authors do a great job of providing those details and, they’re funny. In the realm of business books, candor and humor go a long way. The authors are adept at making the concepts accessible while increasing the likelihood that you’ll remember and use them! Their goal is not just to make you more productive — it’s to help you create more value in your life. Below are some of the devilish details.

Their goal is not just to make you more productive — it’s to help you create more value in your life.

“To Do” Lists

The To Do List gets its comeuppance which should satisfy those of you who tire of endlessly rewriting them, crossing bits out and then losing track of them all together. Even if you transfer them to an app so you don’t have to keep scratching tasks out, they often end up neglected since they’re not much fun to look at in the first place. “Static, devoid of context, they remind us to do a certain number of tasks, but don’t show us valuable, real-time information necessary for effective decision making.” Time to move from static lists to dynamic, visual tasks.

The Brain Dump

Before you can set up your Personal Kanban, you have to do a “brain dump” of everything you’ve either written somewhere or are just holding in your unconscious “inbox” (where it’s available for review at 3:00 am when sleeping is not an option). The authors use the term “existential overload” for the weighty tasks we keep in our heads. Writing them down (one per sticky note!) immediately changes our outlook.

The authors use the term “existential overload” for the weighty tasks we keep in our heads.

They explain why:

  • Comprehension — “When we’re able to represent each of our tasks on individual sticky notes our workload assumes a physical shape.”
  • Kinesthetic Feedback 1: Learning — “The physical experience of taking abstract ideas and turning them into tangible objects (sticky notes) impacts our learning.”
  • Kinesthetic Feedback 2: Pattern Recognition — “Each time we move a sticky note, we receive kinesthetic feedback.”
  • Existential Overload — “Visualizing work reduces the distraction of existential overhead.”
  • Narratives and Maps — “Sticky notes flow through our Personal Kanban, converting work from static data into an instructional narrative.”

Whereas “To Do” Lists are temporary and live on scraps of paper or on forgotten notebook pages, the individual sticky notes become a moveable set. This first set is your Backlog and “if there are too many, well then, there are too many. Reality is harsh.” (told you they were funny). But this is just the launch point. Now you get to determine what makes it onto the board.

Work-In-Process – The Rule of 3

This is a critical point that exposes the cognitive dissonance that most of us practice at work and at home. Someone in your life — your grandfather, your mother — at some point told you, “there’s only so much you can do in a day.” But, as true as that is, most of us operate as if it weren’t. We either agree to do, or are told do, way more than is possible in a day. The result is lost weekends, shoddy work, angry calls, missed deadlines and lots of nights where sleep is not an option.

The result is lost weekends, shoddy work, angry calls, missed deadlines and lots of nights where sleep is not an option.

The answer is to limit what moves from your Backlog into the “Ready” column. It’s not a hard rule. Maybe you can handle 4. Maybe you can only handle 2. You have to figure out your own Work-In-Process or “WIP” limit. There are different ways to do that – you might take instruction from Jim Benson’s inadvertent experiment with his dog.

He relates a story from his youth of throwing Cocoa Puffs cereal to the family poodle, Cookie. Cookie was hungry and uncommonly adept at catching bits of the breakfast cereal in midair. Jim experimented with throwing 1, then 2, then 3 then increasingly larger amounts of the little round morsels at the hapless dog. Cookie was solidly able to catch 3 at once with a decreasing rate of return until Jim (remember, he was a young boy) threw a handful of cereal at the poodle who was able to catch none of it.

He repeated this experiment (apparently through howls of laughter) multiple times and learned: the poodle could always catch 3 Cocoa Puffs but would catch absolutely nothing when thrown a handful. Thus, a scientifically established Poodle-WIP limit of 3.

This is such a great story because it effortlessly makes the point, and it’s funny. Is your workload just so many Cocoa Puffs flying through the air past your head? You may have a different method of determining your WIP limit, but my guess is that most of us humans will end up with 3 like Cookie.

Pulling Tasks Through Your Board

If your Work-In-Process Limit is 3, it’s time to put 3 sticky notes from your Backlog into the “Ready” column of your Personal Kanban. This is the step where you “ask yourself questions like Which is the most pressing task? Which tasks can fit into this half hour before I leave for my meeting? Which tasks can I batch together?” The same questions apply when determining what to pull from the “Ready” column into the “Doing” column.

Dynamic prioritization is the only practical way to work. Your priorities shift all the time. Having incorporated a Personal Kanban (after seeing the authors at a conference a few years back), I am always reassessing what comes onto the board. What’s helpful is to pull the most important task and start it when the day is young and energy is high.

When you pull a task into the “Done” Column, space opens up in the “Doing” Column. When you pull the most pressing task from “Ready” to “Doing,” it’s time to review the Backlog to see what to pull onto the board into the “Ready” Column. No scratching out, no rewriting — just sticky notes travelling across the board.

“Pulling tasks is simple yet vital. The physical act of moving sticky notes across a value stream to change their status satisfies our brain’s need for closure. It’s the kinesthetic expression of completion.” Or, stated another way, “When you move that sticky note from ‘Doing’ to ‘Done’ it’s like brain candy.”

When you move that sticky note from ‘Doing’ to ‘Done’ it’s like brain candy.

Reflecting on What You’ve Accomplished

This last step is a vital addition to any routine. We’re often so pressed for time that we neglect to stop and appreciate what we’ve done. But with a Personal Kanban, it’s staring right at you from the “Done” Column. There’s a growing display of sticky notes that are testament to your accomplishments.

The idea is not only to appreciate what’s been done, but reflect on what worked and what didn’t. The authors caution that “productiveness” is not the same thing as “effectiveness.” That’s why they include the term, “reflect.” The idea is to regularly review what you’ve accomplished and assess whether or not you’re adding any value. If not, you may want to pull more “important but not urgent” tasks onto the board. These tasks are “investments in future quality” and an “antidote to panic.” Great add.

The Kanban Variations

Since people have different workspace setups, they will likely have different needs for their Kanban Boards. Having seen lots of variations, the authors include sample pictures. A perfect example is “The Pen.” If you have to rely on others before you can complete your task, you can add a “Pen” column as a place to temporarily park tasks prior to “Done.” It has a slight “penitentiary” overtone which seems appropriate.

Up Close and Personal

The book is rich with background on why the Personal Kanban works so well and how to adapt it to different workflows. The authors do a great job debunking the myth of multitasking, they take Stephen Covey’s time management to task and they provide a helpful chapter on why overplanning up front is a waste of time — things change. You can also add metrics to the board — but don’t go crazy.

Just to recap the process put forth for the Personal Kanban:

  • “Get Your Stuff Ready” — Get a board, some sticky notes and a felt tip pen
  • “Establish Your Value Stream” — Choose column headers (e.g., Ready, Doing, Done)
  • “Establish Your Backlog” — Move the vague list in your head onto sticky notes
  • “Establish Your Work-In-Process Limit” — Poodle-WIP = 3
  • “Begin to Pull” — Move a sticky note from the “Ready” into “Doing”
  • “Reflect” — Set up a regular retrospective to assess the “Done” pile

Visualizing work seems simple enough but the net effect is encouragement to continuously improve your approach to work. “Personal Kanban facilitates Kaizen.” In an increasingly stressful world dominated by all things digital, it’s a heartening anachronism — sticky notes, a pen and a board can be transformative.

Visualizing work seems simple enough but the net effect is encouragement to continuously improve your approach to work.

About the Authors:

Jim Benson

Jim Benson is the founder of Modus Cooperandi, an organization dedicated to teaching people to see their work, reduce team overload and create processes that promote focus, completion and quality. He is the 2012 winner of the Brickell Key Award for excellence in Lean thinking from the Lean Systems Society (LSS) and is also a Fellow of LSS. An internationally recognized speaker and writer, he followed up the 2011 release of the Shingo award-winning Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life with Why Plans Fail: Why Business Decision Making Is More Than Just Business and Why Limit WIP: We Are Drowning in Work. Jim has a degree in Urban Planning from Michigan State University and Postgraduate studies in Transit Station Location and New Town Development from Meikai University in Tokyo, Japan.

Tonianne DeMaria

Tonianne DeMaria is partner and principal consultant at Modus Cooperandi, co-author of the Shingo Research and Publication Award winning Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life, and the upcoming Why Kanban Works and Kidzban. She is co-founder of Kaizen Camp™, the continuous improvement un-conference with events held worldwide and Modus Institute, the online school specializing in 21st Century management thinking. She has drawn from her experiences to assist clients as varied as The World Bank, The United Nations, Comcast, Riot Games, and the State of Washington.

Practical Tools and Concepts Covered:

Who Should Read Personal Kanban?

From the Page:

“Explicitly and realistically visualizing a seemingly overwhelming task load makes work more manageable.”


Check out our Amazingly Awesome List for more book reviews as well as a comprehensive list of Lean Six Sigma and process improvement books!

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner at GoLeanSixSigma.com. For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.